Mandolins and picks

Mandolins and picks

I was reading another thread recently where advice was offered about the best pick type to use playing mandolin in ITM. I notice that a lot of people ( well two actually! ) were recomending very heavy picks. I know that in bluegrass music, mandolin pickers use really heavy (2mm) picks, but I’ve allways found it almost impossible to do any ornamentation while using such a pick. I use a jim Dunlop .73mm and find it very nifty in the triplet department. I think that American mandolins are generally quiter than European ones, and that part of the issue here is to find a balance between volume in a session and being able to do ornamentation without too much discomfort. I played a gibson A1 for some time and for quality of tone it probably could’nt be surpassed, but it was a constant battle to hear myself in a session. Using a harder pick makes it marginally louder but there is a price to pay in terms of dexterity. Any Thoughts?

Re: Mandolins and picks

I find the heavy pick makes playing ITM easier - a thin floppy pick is more work, it’s got nothing to do with volume for me. Pick weights only contribute a nominal amount of volume increase as compared to how hard you pick. A heavy pick pushes the string down & out of the way setting the string into vibration making for better control from the player, whereas a thin pick is pushed out of the way by the string & sets the string into motion after it’s passed over the string.
I use "Tear Drop" shaped picks, sometimes I use plastic thumbpicks as there is little chance of sailing your pick across the room mid-phrase.
Here’s a funky variation on the thumbpick that I found comfortable.
They come in all gauges.
http://www.jimdunlop.com/picks/herco.html

Re: Mandolins and picks

Maybe your using too much pick, try just using the tip of the pick on your triplets.

Re: Mandolins and picks

I suppose it’s personal preference, but I’ve found better control and agility with a heavier gauge pick. Like Brad says, a thin pick gets deflected by the strings too easily, bending this way and that, and it feels to me like I have to move my fingers/hand through a greater range of motion to account for all that pick bending going on. Whereas a heavy pick just stays put, and the string moves under it. yeah, it helps to not let too much pick come in contact with the string, which is why I like using the rounded top corners of a tear drop shaped pick, rather than the pointy end. Or, as I suggested before, a Grisman shaped pick, with three symmetrical rounded corners (and extra heavy gauge). In talking with some top mando players (David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Chojo Jacques) they all use heavy or extra heavy gauges, and can crack out lightning fast triplets and trills. I wonder what’s the norm among Irish banjo players?

Posted .

Re: Mandolins and picks

The point I was making about volume was in relation to the type of mandolin, rather than the heaviness of the pick. What I meant to say was if you start with a louder mandolin (ie. a european style) you can easily execute the ornamentation with a lighter pick. I take Brad’s point on the dynamics of string deflection relative to pick location as the stroke is made, but I return again to this conclusion: If you have a mandolin which is capable of being heard in a session, it is easier to do the ornamentation with a light pick. The very fact that the instrument has a loudness of its own means that you are not "overdriving" the pick to such an extent that it gets hot and starts to soften. The flexing of the pick actually helps in playing the triplets and is easier on the wrist, allowing the player to change pick direction more easily and play in a more relaxed way. I’m well aware of the fact that most bluegrass players use heavy picks but the style of playing is so much different, that it’s almost like comparing classical bowing to trad bowing. If a player is chopping chords and injecting short runs/solos you have to have a hard pick, but if you are playing all melody parts as you would in ITM, there is no particular need for a stiff pick.
To take up your question about the preference of Irish tenor banjo players, I think that you will find that soft picks are the norm ( I use a Jim Dunlop 0.60mm ! ). There is also a movement in the tenor banjo fraternity which reccomends the use of a length of poly water pipe, pushed up on the first finger, which is totaly inflexible if thats what you are after! This makes for a very raucous sound which was the hallmark sound of travelling banjoists of the early and middle parts of the last century. There are a few appolgists for this practice today, among them a guy called Sully who has written books on the subject. This will probably cultivate some conversation, but some of these "traditions" are best left behind in my opinion.
Anyway, back to the mandolin, and the softish pick. I use a product called "Gorrilla Snot" to keep a grip on the pick —-it never fails even in the sweatiest conditions. And another thing, I allways use a pick with a good point, when it starts to get blunt I throw it in the bin! The plot thickens, or should I say the pick pluckens?

Re: Mandolins and picks

We were in the instrument store the other day, just browsing the mandolins. My son Ryan plays a mandolin my brother gave him, an A style Suzuki. He has been dreaming about getting a better mandolin, so every once in awhile we go in and he plays a few in the music store. It was interesting that the expensive Webers that we went to first did not sound as good or play as easily as a cheaper Epiphone that they had… anyway, Ryan is used to using a pick made of shell, not too pointy. Once when his favorite pick broke, in a pinch I cut up an AOL CD that had come in the mail. Not bad, if you want a custom shape, not too thin and you can easily file the shape.
The picks the store loaned him to try out were either too thin and flexible or too pointed.

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Hmmmm….I’m not sure how I want to jump in here…because I play a Scottish mandolin that has a deep soundbox and light strings….and I’ve expressed my opinions on American instruments in other threads, but, for what it’s worth…I play with a Dunlop 0.6mm pick and find it to be ideal for how I play…which is the key here. A different player with a different repertoire and a different mandolin would possibly find my pick too light and I can see how it is not suited to instruments with heavier string gauges.

So, I think it’s more to do with string gauge than style of instrument..but when you find one that works…don’t let it fly across the room in mid triplet…Brad…what were you thinking??

Re: Mandolins and picks

String gauge - that makes alot of sense, Mcbear.

By the way, we have Radim Zenkl coming to our town for a couple of days, the only stop in Montana in a long tour. If you haven’t heard of him, here is his website.
http://www.zenkl.com

Mandolin phenom from Czechoslavakia, he is designing new instruments, new techniques. Here is a bit from his press release:
"Radim’s performance offers his original music which crosses the tracks of string jazz, new age, bluegrass, flamenco, gypsy, Irish, middle Eastern
and classical music, combined with Czech and Eastern European traditional songs and instrumentals. Besides the standard mandolin Radim uses many instruments of the mandolin family such as mandola, bouzouki and also Irish pennywhistle
and a cow horn. "

Hmmmmm…. cow horn…. I wonder if that tops the list for strangest musical instrument at a session? Didgereedoo has become too common. Now, cow horn,there is something unique.
Will, did you get the press release on Radim Zenkl from Hallie? I’ll forward it to you if you need it.

alice

Re: Mandolins and picks

Hi Alice,
No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and I’m sure there are a few mando (and cow horn :-) players in Helena that would be interested. And I hope you’re telling all your Bozeman friends to buy tickets for Cherish the Ladies in Helena April 7!

Will

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Re: Mandolins and picks

I started off as a youngfella playing with picks of .6 nd .73 tear drop dunlops and would agree that they are nice and easy to use. However I think the sound is somewhat muffled and a harder pick is definitely required to get a true sound from the instrument. I play both mandolin and banjo and use shell picks now, the mandonlin pick is actually heavier than that for the banjo but a lot of musicians that I meet in sessions do have harder picks than mine. Essentially the pick affects the sound you want and although it takes a bit of adapting to go from one size to another it is useful to experiment and find the pick that suits you. Recently, when teaching at a local university, I reminded the student that it was he that was going to be listening to ninety per cent of the music he played so it wasn’t much good if he wasn’t happy.

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Re: Mandolins and picks

Hi Alice,

Thanks for the link….he seems like a really interesting guy and I’ll keep an eye where I can for his music. I lkie the idea of"finger-picked duo style"…but I have enough difficulty as it is.

Dceol - thank you for the advice on shell picks. I have tried one, but I don’t like how it stalls the movement across the strings (for me, the lighter pick/string combo flows much better)…is this just a matter of persistence??


Andy

Re: Mandolins and picks

I’ve recently been experimenting with some designer guitars picks and the most comfortable/best sounding is made by Dugain of France: it is made out of horn (perhaps from a cow?). I’ve also tried bone and a plastic material. The Dugains have very nice organic contours cut into them and are very heavy.

Re: Mandolins and picks

Play softly, and carry a stiff pick…

:-)

bob

P.S. A friend has kindly loaned me her Flatiron Cadet mandolin. I went digging in the old cigar boxes and found the (now PC-challenged, I know…) triangular tortise shell pick I used when I played bluegrass guitar. I had forgotten how wonderfully they ‘bounce’ off the strings compared to plastic! And how they produce more overtones, giving a livelier tone. How fun!

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Pick and string weights are a very personal decision. For myself, I like to go heavy on both,
but I always suggest spending a few months trying different strings before you think you
know what you want. Once you know what strings make your instrument sound the best,
you can figure out which picks are best suited to those strings. Then you get a new instrument
and start all over again…
For picking tunes on guitar, mandolin, and bouzouki, I’ve had the best luck with John Pearse’s
"studio" pick, medium guage, for what that’s worth. You have to order them from Breezy Ridge
music, but I like them much better than anything I’ve found in stores. (after I tried them, I
ordered a gross, just to be sure I didn’t run out) They’re a bit stiffer than I like if I’m backing
tunes, but they’ll pass for that as well.
jon kiparsky, portland, oregon

Re: Mandolins and picks

Play softly, and carry a stiff pick…

:-)

bob

P.S. A friend has kindly loaned me her Flatiron Cadet mandolin. I went digging in the old cigar boxes and found the (now PC-challenged, I know…) triangular tortise shell pick I used when I played bluegrass guitar. I had forgotten how wonderfully they ‘bounce’ off the strings compared to plastic! And how they produce more overtones, giving a livelier tone. How fun!

Take care with strings

Hi Jon,

I would advise a certain caution in experimenting too radically with string guages on a mandolin. A well made instrument is suited to a specific string configuration and going too heavy or too light will, over time, cause all sorts of neck problems. Once again, I would advise asking the questions of the maker directly before experimenting.

It would be a shame to lose a good instrument for the want of the right strings.

Andy

Re: Mandolins and picks

Hi Andy,

I know what heavy guage strings can do to the neck of an instrument, but I’ve never heard of any harm being done from too light a guage. I would appreciate your thoughts on this as I am currently using a very light guage set on my Korean Fender mandolin. E-9, A-13, D-20 and G-32. I use them to help prevent warping, but am I going to create a hump in the neck?

Re: Mandolins and picks

Hi Blowfly,

I’m not really up to speed with all the details on this, but the advice that I’ve gleaned from luthiery(is that a word?) articles relates to maintaining the correct neck tension as much as possible, with a truss rod and correct string guage working together. From what I’ve understood, this indicates that too light a guage will allow settling of the neck and lead to some change in the action. I think that a lot of the decision process on moving string guages will lie in your ability and interest in dialling the instrument’s set-up, not just tuning the strings.

I’ve used 10-14-24-34 ball-end D’Addario strings for the past four years and there is a little relaxation in the neck of my mandolin that needs some work, but I’m not sure when that startted, or what the root cause is.

However, as with everything, I could be wrong, so I still recommend following the advice of somebody who builds instruments and let me know, as I hate to give poor advice.


Andy

Re: Mandolins and picks

Andy
I don’t think the relation between string gauges and truss rods is that important and if it would affect the angle of the neck you just readjust the truss rod. Just make sure that you don’t have the strings in tune while you adjust them. The pressure from the strings could make the truss rod go "snap". Always adjust the rod with the strings loose! Otherwise: don’t be afraid to experiment with your instruments. It’s only by doing it yourself that you learn how your instrument really works!
lars

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Re: Mandolins and picks

I play a lot of instruments - not that I claim to play them well- but anyway, don’t want to change picks, so for mandolin I turn my pick around and use the blunter corner. That gives a similar effect to using a heavier gauge pick

Bob Lusk

Re: Mandolins and picks

Hi Lars,

Thanks for the information….someday I’ll get brave enough to do it :-)

Andy